The Race Card vs the Race-Card Card

As we head into the 2012 election season, and I see all sorts of familiar right-wing rhetoric reappear from the 2008 season, I’m reminded of a powderkeg of an issue lit by the McCain campaign, or the Obama campaign, depending on who you talk to. Obama claimed that the Republicans would try to scare voters by reminding them that he’s “different” – an allusion to his name, age, background and race (“doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills”), which is, of course, exactly what they did (birthing the Birther movement, actually).

But was Obama’s warning “playing the race card”? The McCain campaign certainly thought so. Rick Davis, the McCain campaign manager, responded quickly, with, “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.”

But was Obama playing the race card? What exactly is “the race card?”

The way it’s commonly understood, playing the race card means accusing someone of being a racist in order to score political advantage or deflect criticism. Its practice has been levied towards Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton most frequently, although because of their history in politics and ready interest in speaking on behalf of the entire black “community” (of approximately 40 million Americans), this is not surprising. It had not been used to describe Barack Obama, who has studiously avoided mentioning racism, beyond his deep, balanced treatise on America’s complex history with race, after the Reverend Wright controversy.

It’s difficult, unless you’re hypersensitive to it, to see “my opponents will play up how I’m different from the classic US presidential profile in many different ways” as meaning “if you don’t vote for me, that means you’re racist.”

But the hypersensitive might exactly be the group that the McCain campaign would like to exploit. What the McCain campaign, which has been much more heavily reliant on negative campaigning against his opponent than Obama’s, has been quick to play as an opportunity for itself is the “race-card card,” or tapping into white resentment against perceived use of the race card by African-Americans.

Resentment against Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton reached a fever pitch during the Don Imus controversy, when Imus called the Rutgers women’s basketball team players “nappy headed hos“. Right-wing bloggers and commentators at right-wing sites like The Free Republic and Michelle Malkin’s Hot Air fumed with indignation. (For a different reason, some black commentators also wondered both why Jackson and Sharpton felt the need to inject themselves in the debate, and why right-wing pundits were obsessed with their reaction.)

But did Obama’s original comment have any merit? Has he been an target, or did he raise the spectre of racism to a naive electorate? Let’s look at the attempts to highlight (or even fabricate) Obama’s “differentness”:

  • conservative online magazine Insight publishes story alleging that Obama attended a Muslim religious school, a madrassa (not true)
  • Larry Johnson alleges that he has a video showing Michelle Obama calling white people “whitey” (not true)
  • many right wingers feel the need to highlight the fact that Obama’s middle name is Hussein (which is true, but would most certainly never be mentioned if it were John, or Sidney, for example)
  • Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is constantly called a racist (which is not true; referring to the disgrace of the US’s racist past does not make you a racist)

While these sorts of rumors were not directly attributable to the McCain campaign, they were popular memes circulated in right-wing circles, and almost certainly helped McCain’s candidacy among a type of voter primed to believe these sorts of things. And the campaign was quick to invoke the race-card card, while it largely remains passive when stories that can be easily proven to be untrue were circulated.

Publius at Obsidian Wings had this to say:

But the bigger problem here is that the Race Card Chorus plays on white resentment — which remains a poisonous brew. I’m a child of the rural South. But you know what? Actual racism is a lot less common there — we have a ways to go, but there has been real progress on that front. The more serious problem is white resentment. A lot of white people honestly think they have been significantly deprived of various things because of minorities. And it’s hard to overstate how deeply these feelings run. It’s not so much animosity toward people who are different — it’s the animosity of the aggrieved. They feel like they are the victims. That’s why race is a losing issue for Obama — it’s not so much that people are racist, but that they feel they are being punished because they’re white (yes, I know how completely absurd this must sound to the black community). And so this whole “race card” business feeds these flames (quite consciously, I think).

The race-card card might be more effective than the race card itself.

Oh, and since Rick Santorum has proven himself to be a douche yet again with his disrespectful answer to a gay servicemember’s question at a debate a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d add that link there.

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1 Comment »

  1. The “race card-card ” is just a mind trick used by Reagan and other right-wing idiots. Whites use it to avoid discussing racial issues. Especially since Obama has been president, alot of white people have this feeling like since there is a black president (1/44), (0/100 senators) that there is no racism and discrimination now. So if we call out their behavior for what it is, somehow we are playing the race card. Since most black people take pride in hard work and not making excuses, it tends to work as kind of reverse psycology in a way to make us shut up or silence the truth. Yeah some people do play different cards whether it be race or whatever, but 95% of the time there is a legit reason to call it out in this country. That’s why all of the black personalities on tv are scared to call racism …racism because they don’t want the white people to use the race card-card on them. A white man can come on tv and say ” dont vote for Obama because he is a nigger and I hate blacks” and the black pundits will be scared to call it racism because the very first thing the whites will say is”you are playing the race card” or they will say something like”just because i disagree with Obama doesn’t make me a racist” when noone ever suggested it. They just continue to use these pre-canned responses without ever having the courage to discuss an issue or call out whats wrong. Here is another example: there are 50 people here in the IT dept where I work 25 are white men, 19 white women, 1asian man, 1asian women 2black women, 2 black men. The black men have masters in computer science. The black women have master degrees as well along with the asians. 5 of the white men have bachelor degrees 4 have masters and the other 16 have no college degree. 4 of the white women have bachelor degrees. 22 out of the 25 white men even with less tenure make about 30% more in salary than the minority workers. The white men of course make about 10% more than the white women. Now when the new director came in which was a black man, he asked why was there such a lack of diversity and why was there such a gap when it came to pay and position….you know the first thing most of the white guys said in reaction to this….”he’s playing the race card”…White men especially use this as an excuse for everything.especially when things don’t go their way

    Comment by jaylo — October 5, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

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